Welcome to Talk Rx with Dr. Neha. This week’s subject is a touchy one about politics. I received an email from Jenny in North Carolina: “Doctor Neha, to put it lightly, my family and I have opposing views in politics. While I’m often excited on my way to see them and I care about them, I often end up leaving family gatherings devastated, disappointed and not speaking to them for several weeks. How can I engage with my family in a way that helps us stay connected and still stay true to what I believe in?”
Politics and election years (and even off-election years) can bring up a lot of angst in people. Really what she’s asking is, How do I respect myself and still stay connected to them when I think that they’re saying things that are hurtful? She used the words disappointed and devastated.
Often with family, we’re nostalgic when it’s time for us to get together, but then Aunt Sally will say that one comment about religion or politics that throws off the whole dinner table—and then nobody’s speaking. This is common, and this is the right time to practice.
I liked how Jenny said, “How can I engage?” because what you didn’t say is “How can I get them to respect my views?” which is what most people say. The first and most important thing is that what you have to do is going to be counter-intuitive. Most people defend themselves when somebody states an opposing view at the dinner table or in a conversation, but the secret is to lean into that discomfort first.
By that, I mean notice in your body the reaction that occurred because of something someone said. Maybe your heart starts racing, your muscles get tight, or you stop breathing. The first thing you do is manage yourself and then pay attention to what you think about what just happened, such as, “Wow. I hear that you think what I just said wasn’t valid.” Take a breath, then you repeat back to them what you heard them say. Now they know you heard them, and you’ve recognized your response and managed yourself with breathing.
The important part is that whenever there’s an emotionally charged conversation, which is common with politics, you never want to respond only on the words level, the content level. No, that becomes a did-too, did-not, did-too, did-not kind of a conversation, like when you were kids. Instead, you want to listen more deeply. Listen to what they’re saying on a level below the words that they’re saying. Listen for their emotion. So once you’ve acknowledged the words they said, indicate what emotion you think you’re hearing: “I hear how passionate you are about that senator or that candidate for president.” Second, go one level deeper to what is important to them: “It sounds like what’s really important to you is fiscal responsibility” or “It sounds like what’s really important to you is fairness and justice.”
Another example might be: “I hear how angry you are about that.” Then ask yourself, What’s important? Why are they angry about that? “Oh, what you value is flexibility and courage. What you value is defending our nation.” Think about what this family member is trying to get across through words by listening to what’s beneath the words.
So when you’re at the dinner table next time, notice when something happens inside you, then repeat back so the person knows that you heard them as you’re breathing and managing yourself. Then put yourself in their shoes by listening to their emotions and what they value.
I find that even when I have friends who have differing political views than I do, I can stay friends with them when I can hear what it is they value—because the truth is I value those things too. I may have a different path that I think we should take to get there, but in the end, what I value is often somewhat similar. Even if it’s not in this particular realm, I value flexibility or fiscal responsibility or defending myself in another arena of my life. By listening deeper, you build a common bridge rather than focusing on defending with words. Then once someone else truly feels heard, they’re a lot more open to receiving and hearing what it is that you have to say.
I hope your next family gathering is a different experience for you because it really sounds like you love these people and they’re important to you. Happy election year!
Send me your questions — drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write your question and comments down below.
The Political Awareness Prescription
- Pause to notice what’s happening in your body when someone brings up an opposing point of view.
- Soften your belly and take three deep breaths. Repeat as often as necessary.
- Repeat what you heard the other person say.
- Then articulate the emotions you hear from them (e.g., “You sound passionate about…).
- State what you hear they value (e.g., “I hear how important safety and fiscal responsibility are to you”).
To the joy of democracy,